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Griffin’s Pared-Down ‘Titanic’ a Worthy Vessel

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 1, 2014 8:00PM

Griffin Theatre's 'Titanic.' Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It’s hard to believe that Titanic, that sweeping, grand-scale musical that ran away with the top Tony prize in 1997, can be produced on a small-scale, regional stage. But the team at Griffin Theatre, ever the optimists, have found a way to pare down Maury Yeston’s towering musical into a more manageable production while retaining its poignancy, it’s heart, and it’s majestic, wide-eyed appeal.

This production’s success is twofold: first, scenic designer Joe Schermoly resisted the urge to somehow finagle something akin to a ship on the tiny Theater Wit stage. It just can’t be done (well, that is), and we’re grateful he didn’t try. Instead, a simple yet effective two-level setup, complete with moveable stairs and an adjustable railing, help the cast flesh out a multitude of settings, from the captain’s brig to the coal room to the crow’s nest.

Second, director Scott Weinstein’s well-rounded, 20-person cast had the energy and earnestness that the actual guests on Titanic must’ve felt at first when being loaded on such an historic ship. From the first electric ensemble song, “I Must Get On That Ship,” to those final, despairing moments, restraining their emotions to sing a deft “In Every Age,” the entire cast contributes heavily to make this pared-down production still feel lush.

No musical is perfect, of course. Despite the Griffin’s much-improved enhancements, Titanic is no exception. We’re introduced to a slew of characters and plotlines very early on. Some of the storylines are easily engaging, such as that of Kate (Kelley Abell) and Jim (Kevin Stangler), both third-class passengers who make a connection amid their ambitions for the new world. There’s Caroline (Laura McKlain) and Charles (Matt Edmonds) a British couple running away to America to get married, away from the protestations of Caroline’s blue-blood father. And in a charming yet brief role, there’s Harold (Royen Kent) the young Morse code operator who helps a coal-worker, Fred (Justin Adair), send a love note to the girl he left behind.

But by the time that Ida (Emily Grayson) and Isador (Sean Thomas), the aristocratic owners of Macy’s department stores, begin their softly sung duet, it’s difficult to appreciate their scant love story. Their all-too-brief, delayed moment of storytelling happens during the heartbreaking lifeboat scene, which manages a palpable sense of danger and sorrow.

It’s difficult to stage a show in which every audience member knows more or less how it will end, but this Titanic has an element of newness, a bit of unpredictability, even though we all know the tragic fate awaiting more than 1,500 of the ship’s passengers and crew. Instead, we’re offered a bit more texture—a look into the lives of a few lesser-knowns, such as Frederick Fleet (Josh Kohane), the scout in the crow’s nest who realizes that Titanic is about to collide with an iceberg, and Thomas Andrews (Eric Lindahl), the ship’s architect, who works up until the show’s very last moments to help save innocent lives. And for that, this slimmer yet emotionally dense version of Titanic might just sail its way, hopefully, into more regional theaters.

The show runs through Sunday, Dec. 7 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150 or online.